Friday, 7 October 2011

Panic on a Plate by Rob Lyons: A review

In the last eighty years, the proportion of household income spent on food has dropped from a third to less than a tenth. Fruit and vegetables from around the world are on the shelves all year round. Women are no longer chained to a life of domestic drudgery. Malnutrition and rickets are a distant memory. For the first time in history, we who are lucky enough to live in the West do not have to worry about food.

But worry we do – about genetic modification, fast food, BSE, childhood obesity, adult obesity, salt, margarine, cholesterol, fat, pesticides, red meat, food miles, carbon footprints and school dinners. At the very moment when we should be most relaxed about the food supply, we are bombarded with fears. Fast food is “addictive”, so we are told, and the food industry is trying to kill us for profit. Unless we take drastic action, most Britons will be obese by 2030.

As Rob Lyons patiently explains in this splendid plea for sanity, these beliefs owe more to ignorance and prejudice than fact. Take the humble hamburger, which obesity crusaders have chosen as their very own Moby Dick. On the face of it, it is bewildering why “two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun”—to quote the old Big Mac slogan—should be the embodiment of evil. A burger is only bread, meat and salad. Each Big Mac contains 500 calories – a fifth of a man’s daily ‘limit’ - and you wouldn’t want to copy Morgan Spurlock’s silly experiment of eating nothing else, but it is no more fattening than the supposedly more wholesome alternatives. Ketchup is rich in vitamin C and so are fries - surprisingly, a portion of fries contains between a quarter and a third of an adult’s daily recommended vitamin C intake. There are better candidates for demonization in every middle class kitchen. “Cheese is roughly one third fat. Parmesan is also pretty salty. Olive oil is pure fat. Butter must be, by law, 80 per cent fat," writes Lyons. "Honey and raisins – usually regarded as ‘good’ – are practically pure sugar. Orange juice is 87 per cent water, almost all the rest is sugar.”

Although equally calorific, pasta is 'good', chips are 'bad'. Fizzy drinks are out, but fruit juice – though more sugary – is in. Whether measured by salt, sugar, fat or calorie content, there is little to distinguish ‘junk food’ from haute cuisine. Our perception of good and bad food has less to do with nutrition than it does with class. The dominant view of diet in modern Britain, Lyons argues, “has more to do with a combination of middle-class angst and plain old-fashioned snobbery than anything else.” If you are what you eat then junk food is for junk people. Oh, how we sneered at those ghastly common folk in Rotherham when they shoved fish and chips at their offspring through the school railings. Except that these ‘junk food mums’ - these ‘sinner ladies’ - were actually delivering meals, including sandwiches and jacket potatoes, which any adult would remember from their own school-days, and were only doing so because the school had operated a lunchtime lockdown to force the hapless children to eat Jamie Oliver’s low-fat fodder.

The Rotherham 'sinner ladies'

Jamie Oliver is the proverbial bad smell in Panic on a Plate, popping up with depressing regularity as the voice of the diet police. After making the transition from Sainsbury’s shill (catchphrase: “none of that low fat malarkey”) to canteen crusader, the TV chef turned a reasonable campaign for better school dinners into a witch-hunt against the “tossers” and “arseholes” who dared to give their offspring a packed lunch. Few images sum up the absurdity of the obesity panic than the stocky mockney berating stick-thin kids for eating chips. If you watched it with the sound turned off, Jamie's School Dinners was an hour long illustration of how few school children are overweight. Turn the sound up, however, and Oliver was saving these young 'uns from certain death.

Sausage, beans and chips might not be the most adventurous dish, but it is a perfectly nutritious lunch for active teenagers. With their boundless energy and growing bones, children burn off more calories than stout celebrity chefs. They also have naturally conservative palates, hence the nosedive in school dinners being served after the government capitulated to Oliver’s demands and substituted the much-despised Turkey Twizzlers for broccoli.

There is little that can be usefully said about food beyond the common sense observation that calories consumed should be roughly commensurate with energy expended. For the food faddists, it is not a question of excess versus exercise, but of wholesome food versus killer junk. Despairing of the "numpties" of Rotherham, Oliver could only sigh in exasperation: "If these mums want to effectively shorten the lives of their kids and others' kids, then that's down to them." Like many a culinary campaigner, Oliver is fond of repeating the grotesque lie that today’s children will die before their parents. Even when put in its less misleading form of ‘this generation will die at a younger age than their parents’, this reference to the ‘obesity timebomb’ remains unlikely and is belied by ever-increasing life expectancy estimates. Obesity is not going to bankrupt the NHS. Centenarians might.

The inevitability of parents burying their children in extra-large coffins is one of several oft-repeated ‘facts’ parroted by dietary dogmatists which do not stack up. Campaigners rarely acknowledge that obesity rates levelled off on both sides of the Atlantic ten years ago, and the claim that fast food is ‘addictive’ requires a definition of addiction that is so broad it would include any activity people find enjoyable. The claim that it is cheaper to buy 'junk food' than cook a meal at home is demonstrably untrue and the sainted Mediterranean diet has proved to be less healthful than was believed thirty years ago, while fears of salt, GM crops, BSE and manmade fertilisers have been shown to be greatly exaggerated when not utterly groundless.

The middle classes have been susceptible to food faddism since the Victorian era, when the ‘back to the land’ movement ignited the first stirrings of popular vegetarianism and organic farming. As the urban population began to outnumber that of the countryside, a romantic, idealised view of nature emerged which can be seen to this day in such eccentric organisations as the Soil Association and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The underlying temper of our times,” writes Lyons, “is that anything processed or industrialised can be seen as adulterated and harmful, while anything that appears to be natural or close to nature can be regarded as pure and uncorrupted.”

Jamie Oliver and his chins

The fetish for organic vegetables epitomizes this foodie flim flam. Study after study has found no health benefits from eating organic produce and even organic devotees are unable to distinguish one from the other in blind trials. Far from being led by the evidence, the organic movement is deeply suspicious of science. Fearful of the slightest trace of ‘chemicals’ and suspicious of industry, the organic/anti-GM crowd is backward looking and elitist (hello, Prince Charles). Over-priced and over-rated, organic food is little more than a tax on the credulous.

Just as Oliver yearned to return to the Golden Age of school dinners (no soggy semolina or concrete chips in his recollection), nostalgia for a bygone age of wholesome grub figures heavily in the modern war on fast and/or convenient food. “Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food,” says the writer Michael Pollan. Mmm, all those handpicked vegetables and buxom maidens toiling over churns of butter. Jumpers for goalposts. Marvellous.

Or perhaps not. Your grandmother would probably not recognize spaghetti, hummus or kiwi fruits as food, but she would certainly be familiar with bread and dripping, gruel, fried everything and the early symptoms of scurvy. The range and quality of British food has improved immeasurably since the turn of the last century and supermarkets have broadened our horizons considerably. An illustration of this came when Delia Smith updated her 1970s cook books in 1995 and found that: “Almost everyone now has access to good olive oil, fresh herbs, imported cheese. I found myself over and over again deleting the words ‘or if you can’t get it…’” More choice, lower prices, less toil. What's not to like?

What the food faddists don't like is the modern world. After decades of lingering on the fringes of public life, lentil-munching hypochondriacs have now found an audience at a time when the micromanagement of private behavior is the raison d'etre of British politics. The public health establishment is gearing up for a legislative crusade of tax rises and advertising bans on food which is overtly based on the anti-smoking campaign. Big Food is already being wheeled out as the new Big Tobacco, and politicians who lack bigger ideas are happy to lead the assault against what they are told is a new ‘epidemic’. The food on our table will be targeted by law-makers and single-issue campaigners for many years to come. The myths and half-truths discussed in Panic on a Plate will be echoed often and loudly. Prepare yourself by reading this excellent book.

Buy Panic on a Plate from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


Anonymous said...

"...the anti-organic movement is deeply suspicious of science."

Surely you meant to say anti-GM?

Christopher Snowdon said...

Damn. Yes. The pro-organic and anti-GM.

Changed it now. Ta.

Dick Puddlecote said...

Yep, this has been on my Amazon watch list for a couple of months, now it's available I'm looking forward to it.

Glad the issue of class comes up, those food fetishists I am acquainted with often let their lofty masks slip when talking of 'fat northerners' in a derogatory tone. As if 1960s Coronation Street is still how anyone north of Bedfordshire lives. And Oliver didn't choose Peckham for his most recent sermon, did he?

David C said...

This is a brilliant "rant" against the foodie idiots. You should start doing youtube versions for the hard of reading.

dearieme said...

Quite right too. But "substituted the much-despised Turkey Twizzlers for broccoli" is confusing.